Will Biden follow Obama on Iran?
Dec 1, 2020 | Israel Kasnett
One of the top foreign-policy issues President-elect Joe Biden will be forced to address upon taking office in January will be the Iranian threat.
On the campaign trail, in what was seen as a dig at US President Donald Trump’s efforts to apply maximum pressure on Iran through sanctions, Biden said he would handle Iran “the smart way” and would give Iran “a credible path back to diplomacy.” Biden has also said that the United States could re-join the deal “as a starting point for follow-on negotiations” if Iran commits to full compliance.
But Israel’s security establishment is worried that another Obama-esque approach to Iran will fail a second time and will once again result in a triumphant Iran flush with billions of dollars in cash.
Asaf Romirowsky, Executive Director of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East and a senior non-resident fellow at Bar-Ilan University’s Begin-Sadat Centre, said that Biden will “have a hard time disregarding the renewed sanctions on Teheran and their effects.”
“As a veteran politician, Biden has a greater appreciation of the US-Israeli alliance and will not compromise Israeli security,” said Romirowsky. “Moreover, his history with Israel will contribute to his attitude that would presumably be less acrimonious [than] during the Obama years.”
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, quoted by the state-run IRNA news agency, said the next US administration must “compensate for past mistakes” and “return to the path of complying with international agreements through respect of international norms.”
According to the latest report by UN inspectors, Iran has 2,440 kilograms of enriched uranium stockpiles, which far exceeds the 300 kilograms allowed under the 2015 nuclear deal known as the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action). Experts say that is enough material to make at least two nuclear weapons. The report said that Iran is also enriching uranium to as much as 4.5% purity, which is also higher than the limits in the deal (3.67%). Additionally, Iran has completed the transfer of a cascade of advanced centrifuges from a plant above ground to an underground site, which can protect the plant from aerial attacks.
What has Israeli experts worried is Iran’s blatant non-compliance with the deal and clear interest in pursuing nuclear weapons. It continues to install advanced centrifuges and is developing its intercontinental ballistic missile program.
Iran’s lies and deceptions with regard to its intent for its nuclear program, which it says is for peaceful purposes only, have been handily proven by Israel in a number of instances. But each time Israel requested that the international community investigate, it was met with a slow response.
Uzi Rabi, director of the Moshe Dayan Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at Tel Aviv University, said he is concerned that Israel will soon find itself “at the eleventh hour” with regard to Iran’s nuclear weapons program.
He noted Biden’s intentions to negotiate with Iran, as well as Teheran’s eagerness to reach an agreement due in part to its poor economic situation.
“The question is what sort of agreement Biden has in mind,” said Rabi. “Will it have modifications with regard to Iran’s ballistic-missile program, Iran’s aggression in the region and bringing in more monitoring? That would be great.”
The JCPOA ignored or mismanaged all three of these issues.
Rabi said he hopes that the Americans have “learned a lesson from what happened before” regarding Iran’s disingenuous approach to negotiating. He also said the Americans “cannot get to the negotiating table and play it by ear. They must have a clear end game.”
He explained that the important elements that were left out of the deal, such as Iran’s ballistic missile program, its hostile behaviour in the Middle East, and improved inspections, should be included in any new agreement.
“One should hope that Biden and his team [are] coming up with a fresh approach about how to deal with Iran,” he said.
Rabi said that behind the scenes, Gulf state leaders fear that Biden will follow Obama’s appeasement approach and will want to lift sanctions and reduce pressure on Iran.
This mistaken approach could have a negative “snowball effect,” he warned. “Biden should bear this in mind and internalise what has happened in the Middle East.”
Ultimately, said Rabi, this is Biden’s “litmus test”.
“If Biden performs in a successful way when it comes to the Iran file, that will make life easier for everyone in the Middle East, including the United States. If the opposite happens, you can definitely expect a negative snowball effect,” he stated.
Rabi suggested that Israel needs a joint agreement with Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates by which they can influence some changes to any new Iran deal if and when it happens.
Romirowsky added that “Iran and its proxies are still the largest destabilising factors to the region.”
As such, he said, “a Biden administration will contend with a more unified Middle East – a Sunni Crescent that includes Israel. This will require an understanding of Israeli deterrence bolstered by an Israeli Qualitative Military Edge.”
According to Romirowsky, moving forward, Biden will need to “convince Israelis that he will have their best interests in mind when it comes to Iran.”